Aromas of Family Folklore

a plate of Dad's delicious soul food
a plate of delicious soul food

Recipes have a funny way of being a part of one’s history.  Whole stewpots of memories simmer in the burners of my heart with the precious aromas of family folklore.  For instance, my Uncle Colvin used to visit relatives on Saturday mornings after he and Aunt Joni’s weekly sunrise trip to Eastern Market.  He considered it bad manners to arrive empty-handed, and bore gifts of fruit that we loved for the tart smells they left on the air, and the colors, textures and shapes of their rinds and ripe flesh.  Sometimes he would share his melt-in-your-mouth homemade sausage that fried up tender and sputtered all sassy and juicy in the skillet.  My mother would fry hot-water cornbread in the drippings, and I liked to sit at the kitchen table eating stacks of them slathered with butter.  For our annual Christmas Eve gathering, Uncle Colvin would bring hog’s headcheese that he and Daddy and Aunt Rose sliced, then munched on saltine crackers with the same reverential demeanor reserved for eating chitlins. You could hear them munching and grunting and remembering stories with contents reserved for grown folks.

When Big Ma rode North on the Greyhound bus to visit her “chirren,” my father and uncles would disappear on an errand to collect a brown paper sack of mysterious ingredients that included horehounds, rock candy, and cod liver oil.  Us kids were shooed out of the kitchen when she got to making this concoction created to keep us healthy.  My mother teasingly called the syrup juju,” and seemed to relish watching us line up to drink tablespoons from the brown bottle every morning that my grandmother was in town.  When we visited her in Alabama, I observed other silent house rules:  the first person to rise in the morning puts on a pot of coffee, a pot of grits, and slices bits from a block of colby in preparation for scrambling cheese-eggs.  Everybody served some sort of kitchen duty, and a child could win precious points if she knew how to chop, dice, measure, stir, fry, and clean.  Our southern cousins were surprised to learn that we shared these skills; it was as if they thought that back home in Detroit we had cooks and maids grilling steaks for us and holding goblets of chilled ice tea to our lips.

Over the years I have found there are foods that can mean many things to me.  Some inspire reverie (homegrown tomatoes sliced and layered with mayonnaise, salt and pepper on white bread).  There are foods reserved for company (any moist, tall, layer cake made from scratch, possibly stuffed with fruits and nuts, and frosted with wave-like icing).  And foods that inspire storytelling (rice or banana pudding, red-hot sausages, possum with sweet potatoes, salmon croquettes with buttered rice, stomp-down collard greens with ham hocks, and homemade peach ice cream).  My personal favorite, however, is what I call
Stew For A Nostalgic Good Time.
You will need:
-1 Saturday night
-2 napkin-lined bowls of salty spanish peanuts mixed with pastel mints
-2 wig-wearing aunts who won’t tell all they know but love to laugh
-1 wooden dining-room table sturdy enough for playing highly-physical versions of games like “Spoons” and [straight] “Whist”
-3 uncles who spank the table while playing “Bid Whist”
-Slabs of ribs dripping with homemade barbeque sauce
-Several chilled pitchers of [don’t-hold-nothing-back] “Harvey Wallbangers
-At least 4 people with strong signifying skills
-At least 4 people who can harmonize on “Don’t Mess With Bill
-Couples who remember how to “social” (old school Detroit vernacular for slow dance)
-At least 4 elders who know how to play a family heirloom game such as “Spirit Depart”
-1 turntable and a basement where grown folks can listen to recordings of Moms Mabley,
Slappy White, Redd Foxx, Nipsey Russell, and Richard Pryor
-Handkerchiefs in case anyone bursts out crying

Simmer for about 9 hours.

In 1999 I was approached by journalist, musician, and poet Larry Gabriel, who was editing the newsmagazine,[Detroit]City View. He had an idea for a regular column called “Taste This!” “It’s about food,” he said, “but not restaurant reviews. Do you think you’d be interested in writing something?” I shrugged my shoulders; I was eager to try. “Aromas of Family Folklore” is what I came up with, and Larry liked it enough to mentor me in writing and publishing five more pieces for “Taste This!” (Thanks, Larry!)  Unfortunately, City View didn’t last very long and readers outside of Detroit didn’t get to read it. After unearthing my copies, re-reading them, and getting a little weepy because few of the folk I mention in the piece are still alive, I decide to re-print it on my blog.

In loving memory.


  1. My Google is exhausted from looking up so much good stuff like Colby cheese, head cheese, hot-water-cornbread. I enjoyed the sassy sausage description, too, which made perfect sense with all that spattering and sputtering in the pan. Spoons! I remember destroying a plastic tablecloth during one our games. And thank you so much for the reminder of Nipsey Russell. Fantastic post, Leslie. Your family sounds like a lot of fun.

    1. Oh, Susanne, I’m so glad you’ve played “Spoons”! Isn’t it a hoot? You know, since this piece was first published the old- fashioned way, I forgot to look up URL links for the things you had to Google. I’ll see if I can’t remedy that. People of my Dad’s generation and before performed hog-killing and every age group had a hand in all of the assorted duties with regard to butchering and cleaning and smoking and cooking, etc., but it just occurred to me that my eating of certain foods kind of fades away as the people who cooked them join the ancestors and our diets change with the science and attitudes of the times.

  2. Thank you, thank you and thank you. Reading this blog has taken hold of me tightly. While reading I could swear I was in the home and at the table laughing, jaw jacking and eating up a mess of greens. Screaming Thank you with a hardy laugh while licking my fingers one by one.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jermaine, for reading the post and responding in the spirit with which it was written! Maybe you’re one of those “Uncles-in-training”!

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